Truth, imagination & bleief: How do we decide?

Far from being gullible, young children are capable of rejecting claims when they don’t match their experiences, but this doesn’t mean they’re always right.

Making the distinction between what is real and what is not seems simple enough although multiple layers of fantasy can quickly complicate things. I, as an adult, no longer believe in Santa Claus (I actually can’t ever recall believing in Santa Claus). That said, I do vaguely recall not really understanding the concept of Santa Clause. This last point might be particularly relevant because it would seem that young children might be more sceptical than grown-ups instinctively believe. Like many parents I have been subjected to the barrage of questions about such things as, how does Santa fit down the chimney? or how does he manage to visit every child in the world on the same night? My own son’s belief in Santa Claus was much shorter-lived than I believed, finally realising that he was just humouring me because he wanted me to believe that he believed.

While belief in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy is expected to fade as children get older, adults themselves often make a decision about what they believe in and reject. We may choose, therefore, to believe in religious explanations of the creation of the universe and the existence of an all-powerful and loving God, or we choose to reject these explanations outright or in part. Some people believe in ghosts and alien abductions or that Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced by a look-alike. Many of these beliefs have little if any basis in objective reality, yet people still choose to accept them as real. Many would also represent examples of what is known as a fantasy-prone personality.

Despite many examples of when we believe in counter-factual information, there remains a general tendency for adults to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Piaget argued that children aren’t able to make this distinction until around the age of eleven or twelve, often assuming that creatures such as dragons are real or someone dressed as a vampire really is a fully paid-up member the blood-sucking Transylvanian undead. This process is often referred to as naive credulity, the view that children are generally gullible and believe pretty much anything adults tell them, in part because they are unable to differentiate fantasy from reality.

The Credulity Bias

Richard Dawkins argues that this credulity bias is in part adaptive and a necessary stage of the learning process. Without this bias, learning would be much slower because the child would be sceptical of everything they were told by an adult. According to psychologist Dan Gilbert, it would make sense for the default to be set to believe because disbelief takes more cognitive effort. This would imply that all information is first believed to be real and it’s then through social interaction and social exchange that people begin to group things they know are real and those that are not.

There’s an obvious problem here, in that even adults believe in some things for which there is scant empirical evidence. Parents, teachers and other adults hold views that may well be counter-factual, the most obvious being the existence of a creator-god. There are many other examples, including Santa Claus, but this then extends to include attitudes towards other concerns such as medical vaccination, global warming or wider beliefs about the supremacy of some groups over others. Beliefs aren’t always based in fact or evidence, which is why they’re beliefs. A child, therefore, might be raised in a conservative religious household that rejects the theory of evolution or a family who espouses the superiority of an ‘Aryan race’. We assume, then, that children raised in such households will accept these views wholeheartedly because of a bias towards assuming that everything adults tell them is the truth and shouldn’t be questioned.

Yet, even though my parents, no doubt, continued with the Santa Claus ruse, there was certainly a time when I simply thought of such a man existing as either improbable or certainly problematic. How, then, do children reconcile issues surrounding, say, magic as practised by witches and wizards and the miracles they hear about from religious traditions? Somehow they need to make a distinction and also decide what is the most plausible, or that both are equally implausible.

Sharing certain beliefs is vital to the running of society and social cohesion arises through a set of shared norms and values. People need to believe in certain imagined realities, such as the democratic process or the criminal justice system while at the same time believing that some behaviours, such as murder and theft, are in conflict with the values of society as a whole.   

Making the Choice Between Real and Not-Real

Eugene Subbotsky, a psychologist at Lancaster University in the UK, argues that magical and rational views of reality co-exist and that scepticism doesn’t suddenly replace credulity. Children are more sceptical than we give them credit for, which would, perhaps, explain all those awkward questions concerning Santa coming down the chimney. The situation we find ourselves in, then, influences whether we come down on the side of real or not-real and while at first, we rely on our own experience and knowledge to make this decision, as we develop cognitively and socially, we include a wider range of information to help us reach a conclusion. Curiously, when this development is plotted on a graph, it forms an inverted U, from scepticism to credulity and then back to scepticism, indicating that very young children don’t necessarily believe everything adults tell them, even when the information is accurate.

One interesting early study was carried out by the celebrated cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead in the early 1930s. Mead had travelled with her then-husband Reo Fortune (also an anthropologist) to New Guinea, where Fortune was conducting work into the Manu language. Never one to miss an opportunity, Mead, who was inspired by Piaget’s ideas around magical thinking in children, decided to conduct her own research with the Manu people. At the time there was a generally held view that non-Western cultures were more credulous than Western ones and more likely to believe in things that they were told, in other words, they were more gullible. However, Mead discovered that Manu children seemed highly resistant to the spiritual beliefs of their parents. Young Manu boys are told by their parents and other adults that they have a guardian ghost who is always with them and can be consulted on a range of matters, yet despite these ghosts having an important role to play in the spiritual traditions of the Manu, the boys would display little interest in them and even dismiss their existence outright. Adults, on the other hand, believed in the existence of these ghosts.

Our views about what is real and what is not are certainly influenced by social as well as personal factors and may run counter to evidence and experience. Adults play a major role in influencing the choice of belief, but as can be seen from Mead’s findings, children aren’t always gullible recipients, indeed, where some things are concerned, children appear highly sceptical, only to fall into line a little later. Rita Astuti of the London School of Economics and Paul Harris of Harvard University investigated differences in beliefs about death amongst the Vezo, a semi-nomadic people of southern Madagascar. Astuti and Harris asked children and adults about the functioning of biological (for example, eyes), psychobiological (for example, seeing) and cognitive function (thinking/knowing) after death. While both children and adults agreed that biological processes ceased to function after death, children were more likely to believe that psychobiological and cognitive functions ceased after death than were the adults (Astuti & Harris, 2008). In a related study, Christine Legare and Susan Gelman found that adults in their South African sample were more likely to accept supernatural explanations of AIDS than adolescents (Gelman & Legare, 2011). 

Naive Sceptics

Of course, in our modern media filled society we often find ourselves weighed down by the deluge of true, fake or biased information, yet even before we obtained our news from Facebook and Twitter, we were still having to separate what was real and what was not, whether it was a television show, a film or a book. If children are sceptics, then they are naive ones because not only do they appear to reject information that isn’t true, they also have a tendency to reject information that is. By the age of five, children are making a distinction between reality and fiction, it’s just that they’re not always getting it right. At age five, for example, children are assuming that everything they see on the television, even the news, isn’t real, but by around seven they’re beginning to categorise some programs as real and others as fiction (Wright, Huston, Reitz, & Piemyat, 1994). We can identify similar patterns in storybooks, with children showing scepticism about the existence of characters at three and four years old. Jacqueline Woolley and Victoria Cox presented children with three types of book: realistic, fantastical or religious, finding that up until the age of four, children are sceptical about the existence of characters in all three, however, by about the age of five, the children were attributing a higher reality status to characters in the religious stories. Similarly, five-year-olds were less likely to say that the events in the realistic and fantastical storybooks had happened while they were more likely to say that the stories in the religious books had taken place. However, three- and four-year-olds were more likely to claim that events depicted in realistic books could happen than in fantastical books.

The findings concerning religious stories are particularly interesting as they would suggest that parents and church leaders are influencing children from a young age and children are making a distinction between these stories and the fantastical ones. While children tend to judge acts of physical violation (such as flying on a broomstick) as not real, if we include God in the mix (such as Moses parting the Red Sea) older children are more likely to accept it, this is not always the case in younger children (Woolley & Cox, 2007).

The Role of Experience

The reality-fantasy distinction, therefore, is one that appears to change with age, but the way it changes does appear quite curious. Why should children be more sceptical when they are younger, surely they should be less so? If, however, we consider that young children have fewer experiences and knowledge (semantic and episodic memories) it might seem sensible to conclude that they base their reality-fantasy judgments on these. If I have never seen a kangaroo, for example, might I simply believe that they do not exist, after all, it’s a particularly strange creature? Young children base their beliefs on what they already know and they often overestimate the knowledge they have. In one study led by Jacqueline Woolley, children aged between three and nine years old were shown a video of two people discussing a galah, a bird native to Australia. The children then had to decide if the creature being discussed was real or made-up. The comments expressed by the children give some indication of their thought processes when making a decision, with one child commenting, ‘I’ve never heard of one of those; I doubt it exists’. What the children didn’t appear to take into consideration was the possibility that they had limited knowledge and based their choice on their perceived (and over-inflated) experience (Woolley, Ma, & Lopez-Mobilia, 2011).

Notions about the physical world also suffer from this kind of naive scepticism. Vosniadou and Brewer (1992) investigated children’s ideas about the shape of the Earth. Their initial response is that the Earth is flat because this view seems to chime with their own experiences of it. Once they are taught that the Earth is round there is a period of resistance, although they do begin to generate models of the Earth that include what they have learned, yet they continue to retain the basic notion of flatness. Some children below the age of nine also identify the sky as being at the top of the Earth because this represents their personal experience. Of course, a curious caveat to this is that there exist many adults who also believe the world is flat, even though they are aware of evidence to the contrary. E Margaret Evans of the University of Michigan found that young children are quite resistant to evolutionary explanations of the origin of species, preferring creationist notions because they are easier to assimilate. Evans suggests that these problems arise through the existence of three cognitive biases: the assumption that living things are stable and unchanging; the belief that behaviour is goal-directed; and the belief that behaviour is intentional. Again, these biases are supported by the children’s own everyday experiences, that most animals do not change their identities. To children, evolutionary theory is more difficult to grasp because they have no direct experience of it.

As children grow older and their experiences increase they are much better equipped to deal with novel situations and distinguish between reality and fantasy. Very young children might consider knights and dinosaurs to be made-up, but their confidence in their existence grows as they learn new things and experience situations that confirm this existence. At the same time, they are able to think about things they know do not exist or events that have never taken place. Like imaginative play, they know that many of the things they think about have been conjured from their own mind and are often mutations of what is real. A child learns about knights and uses this knowledge to engage in play that involves them; they may or may not know that knights are real (at least in a historical sense).

Children develop the ability to separate (or quarantine) present, imagined and make-believe elements from people, places and event that exist in reality. But the assumption here is that, as humans develop, they are more likely to base their beliefs on the evidence available rather than taking a leap of faith, yet we also know that many adults believe in counterfactual possibilities such as the world being flat or that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job. These are counterfactual because the evidence is overwhelmingly against these beliefs and, while they may well be fuelled deliberately by dubious media outlets and through social media, even when presented with counter-evidence, the beliefs remain.

This article is adapted from the unpublished manuscript The Dreamer in Broad Daylight: Memory, Emotion and Our Imagined Lives and is ©Marc Smith 2019.

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Astuti, R., & Harris, P. L. (2008). Understanding mortality and the life of the ancestors in rural Madagascar. Cognitive Science, 32(4), 713–740.

Evans, EM. Conceptual change and evolutionary biology: A developmental analysis. In: Vosniadou, S., editor. International Handbook of Research on Conceptual Change. Vol. 11. New York, NY: Routledge; 2008. p. 458-484.Cognition and Development, 11, (pp. 263-294) Flavell

Gelman, S. A., & Legare, C. H. (2011). Concepts and Folk Theories. Annual Review of Anthropology, 40(1), 379–398.

Vosniadou, S., & Brewer, W. F. (1992). Mental models of the earth: A study of conceptual change in childhood. Cognitive Psychology, 24(4), 535–585.

Woolley, J. D., & Cox, V. (2007). Development of beliefs about storybook reality: Developmental Science, 10(5), 681–693.

Woolley, J. D., Ma, L., & Lopez-Mobilia, G. (2011). Development of the Use of Conversational Cues to Assess Reality Status. Journal of Cognition and Development, 12(4), 537–555.

Wright, J. C., Huston, A. C., Reitz, A. L., & Piemyat, S. (1994). Young Children’s Perceptions of Television Reality: Determinants and Developmental Differences. Developmental Psychology, 30(2), 229–239.

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